Cunningham Stages His First Dance “Event” Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Modern-dance choreographer Merce Cunningham broke with tradition by presenting segments of dance repertory in diverse performance spaces such as museums, gymnasiums, and public squares.

Summary of Event

In June, 1964, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company Merce Cunningham Dance Company embarked on an extensive tour that included performances in Asia and Europe. While traveling through Austria during the first month of the tour, the company was asked by the people of Vienna to present an unscheduled concert. Since the only space available for the performance was the city’s Twentieth Century Museum, Museums citizens provided a platform for the dance company in front of a large glass wall that formed the back of the building. As there were no wing spaces, stage lights, or curtains, choreographer Merce Cunningham realized he could not present a traditional concert of repertory pieces. Instead, on June 24, he presented a decidedly nontraditional performance. Modern dance Events, dance Public spaces, performance in Choreography;modern dance [kw]Cunningham Stages His First Dance “Event” (June 24, 1964) [kw]Dance “Event”, Cunningham Stages His First (June 24, 1964)[Dance Event, Cunningham Stages His First] [kw]"Event", Cunningham Stages His First Dance (June 24, 1964)[Event, Cunningham Stages His First Dance] Modern dance Events, dance Public spaces, performance in Choreography;modern dance [g]Europe;June 24, 1964: Cunningham Stages His First Dance “Event”[08100] [g]Austria;June 24, 1964: Cunningham Stages His First Dance “Event”[08100] [c]Dance;June 24, 1964: Cunningham Stages His First Dance “Event”[08100] Cunningham, Merce Cage, John Rauschenberg, Robert

Cunningham called the ninety-minute performance a “Museum Event” and included sections of pieces and parts of repertory, sometimes presenting two dances on stage at the same time. Visual artist Robert Rauschenberg created a set piece specifically for the “Event,” and composer John Cage supplied the musical score, which was performed by a quartet of players. This Museum Event unfolded continuously, without an intermission.

Later during the 1964 tour, the Cunningham company was asked to perform in the Modern Museum of Stockholm, Sweden. The company offered two separate evenings of dance that included a collage of dance movement from Cunningham repertory pieces. The two performances in Stockholm and the one in Vienna were the first Events that Cunningham staged.

From the latter part of the 1960’s through the 1980’s, Cunningham presented more than two hundred Events in the United States and on international tours. The company performed Events in instances where a stage was too small or circumstances elicited a nontraditional performance. Cunningham has stated the Events were principally meant to advocate the use of alternative spaces for dance performances and to present the company members with intriguing opportunities to solve problems and to adjust to different performance environments. For example, in Venice, Italy, at the Piazza San Marco, Cunningham and dancers designed an Event in which the audience followed the performers from one place to another.

Dressed in sneakers and sweat pants, the dancers filed out to the square carrying chairs and brooms. After selecting a performance area, the dancers sat on the chairs in a tightly knit group. Each performer then proceeded to sweep the ground and push the chairs out, thus enlarging the dance area. Next, the company performed sections of repertory until a single dancer picked up a chair and cued the others to do likewise. Followed by the audience, the group carried the chairs and brooms to a new location and repeated the entire procedure. After five repetitions of this sequence, the Event ended.

Cunningham presented six Museum Events between 1964 and 1968. In 1968, the choreographer expanded his Event sites to include gymnasiums, and in 1969, the company performed Events in theater spaces as well. In the early 1970’s, Cunningham began staging Events in the United States on a regular basis. Similar to the previous Events, these performances did not take place in traditional proscenium theaters but in alternative performance spaces such as museums, gymnasiums, sports arenas, or Cunningham’s own dance studio. Cunningham also staged Events in churches, parks, and shopping plazas. Events were generally assembled only a few days prior to performance, and each individual Event was considered unique. Cunningham has stated that one intention of the Events was to reveal to the audience the experience of dancing rather than to offer an evening of traditional dance performance. As an experimental choreographer, Cunningham challenged viewers to perceive each dance performance as a unique phenomenon.

In March, 1973, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company presented four performances at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City as Events. Each Event was a ninety-minute mosaic of dance sequences, sections of dances, and entire pieces performed in random order, with no intermission. The audience reaction was bewilderment, confusion, and even contempt. Members of the crowd shouted and jeered. Some adolescents even ran disruptively through the balcony of the theater. After this upheaval at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Cunningham decided to stage the Events in his studio at the Westbeth artists’ cooperative in Greenwich Village, New York. The Events were offered on the weekends at the Westbeth studio and gradually attracted a growing audience. By 1977, Cunningham had presented more than 140 Events, each of which the choreographer had numbered. By 1985, Cunningham abandoned the practice of numbering the Events when the total exceeded 200.


In many respects, the field of avant-garde dance and choreographic experimentation is Cunningham’s progeny. In conventional approaches to choreography, the dance movement, music, costumes, set design, and lighting all adhere to a central idea or theme. In Cunningham’s approach, the dance, music, and visual elements remain independent and autonomous, although viewers still perceive them simultaneously as part of the dance performance. In this way, the individual art forms do not illustrate a single theme expressed in the dance but comprise a tripartite performance event. For example, an eighty-minute Event held at the Cunningham dance studio during the mid-1980’s originated in a typical manner from the juxtaposition of several Cunningham dances. Excerpts from Fielding Sixes (choreographed in 1980), Scramble (1967), Winterbranch (1964), and Changing Steps (1975) were grafted to parts of Cunningham’s 1964 work Cross Currents and a duet from the 1977 dance Fractions.

As in the majority of Cunningham’s work, the musical score accompanying the Event was composed independently of the dance. The dancers heard the sound score for the first time during the actual performance. Cunningham has worked with experimental visual artists and composers in this way throughout his career and was the first modern dance choreographer to do so. Elements of set design, costume, and music were created separately and assembled for the first time during the performance. To Cunningham, this seemingly aleatoric method of composition is symbolic of the world’s complexity; he has stated that “You can hear the sound, say, of a boat and see a bird flying at the same time, and the two become a single energized moment.”

The 1964 tour that saw the inception of Cunningham’s Events also marked the first extensive press coverage given to the company. The increased media attention manifested itself back in the United States in the form of expanded audiences. The Events, however, created a furor among dance audiences. Cunningham’s unorthodox approach to choreography was elusive to many viewers, and controversy over the Events increased. Some audience members walked out when the four Events premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Others became avid supporters of the new approach to choreography.

Undaunted by occasional negative audience response, Cunningham continued to experiment with innovative ideas. On July 23, 1965, shortly after the 1964 world tour, Cunningham created Variations V Variations V (Cunningham)[Variations Five] for a Franco-American festival. This multimedia performance included dance, television, and film and featured music composed by John Cage. Dancers moved among a grid of poles that supported numerous antennae. As the performers moved past the antennae, they triggered music that responded to the movement. Simultaneously, films were projected on stage.

Cunningham cultivated an enduring association with visual artists and musicians. He collaborated with visual artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns Johns, Jasper , and Andy Warhol Warhol, Andy . In 1944, Cunningham began a long-term collaboration with musician and composer John Cage, who served as the musical director for the Cunningham dance company. Videographers and poets accompanied Cunningham’s Events as well.

Cunningham’s choreography supplied a vital force within the field of dance and constantly challenged viewers to question, renew, and adjust conceptions about the art form. Perhaps the greatest contribution Cunningham’s work made to the dance world was the use of chance elements, of serendipity, to structure a work. Suite by Chance Suite by Chance (Cunningham) (1952) was the first Cunningham piece in which the element of chance dictated the resultant choreography; for the piece, Cunningham created a series of charts that notated body movements, spatial directions, and duration of movements. The dancers followed the instructions on the charts in order to perform the piece. In 1975, Cunningham choreographed Torse, Torse (Cunningham) which was also representative of his experimentation with chance operations. Cunningham tossed coins and threw dice in order to determine movement sequences.

The juxtaposition of pedestrian or vernacular movement with more stylized dance sequences was also characteristic of Cunningham’s choreography. The content of each dance often resided in the actual physical nature of the movement rather than in overt storytelling. In Cunningham’s dances, many different things happened at once. No central focus existed, which suggested that no one event was of more importance than another. The discontinuity of music and dance resulted from the autonomic creation of sound score and choreography. The theatrical elements of music, dance, lighting, costume, and set design were created independently and only assembled in actual performance. The process of making the dance, rather than the production of a specific piece, was emphasized. As typified by the Events, Cunningham consistently placed more importance on the procedure rather than the result.

Cunningham’s Events changed the way the dance world viewed choreography. Dance was no longer viewed as an event that took place only in a proscenium theater. Dance could take place in myriad environments and could be perceived from a number of vantage points. The Events had a major impact on the “happenings” of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Audiences came to view dance as capable of occurring anywhere: in sports arenas, churches, and city streets. In the late 1960’s, Ann Halprin and the Dancers’ Workshop of San Francisco experimented with dance in nontraditional spaces. In the late 1970’s, choreographers such as Twyla Tharp and Meredith Monk sought out diverse environmental settings for many of their dances.

The advent of Merce Cunningham’s Events in the mid-1960’s expanded the audience’s viewpoint of dance to include more than just the proscenium stage. In addition, Cunningham challenged viewers to consider dance as a random collage of movement, often assembled by chance. A winner of many awards in the 1990’s and early twenty-first century for a lifetime of achievement in dance, Cunningham also continued to work, returning to the stage in 2001 for the theatrical presentation of John Cage’s An Alphabet, Alphabet, An (Cage) which played initially in Europe with subsequent engagements in the United States and Australia. Within the field of experimental dance, Cunningham stands as an instigator and pioneer. Modern dance Events, dance Public spaces, performance in Choreography;modern dance

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Coe, Robert. “The Moderns and Beyond.” In Dance in America. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1985. Provides a thorough overview of Cunningham’s work, including detailed descriptions of several Events. Extensive videography of modern dance is included that offers complete information on a 1977 Event for television presented by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Bibliography and index. Black-and-white photographs that illustrate the range of Cunningham’s work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Copeland, Roger. Merce Cunningham: The Modernizing of Modern Dance. New York: Routledge, 2004. This biography uses Cunningham’s life and work as a mechanism for understanding the history of twentieth century avant-garde dance and art in general, and uses that history in turn to provide insight into Cunningham’s work. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cunningham, Merce, and Jacqueline Lesschaeve. The Dancer and the Dance. New York: Marion Boyars, 1985. A definitive work on Cunningham and his choreographic process. Format of the book is an extensive interview with Cunningham. Includes detailed information on the Events. Chronology, filmography, photographs, and index, as well as reproductions of some of Cunningham’s handwritten choreography scores.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Emily Lowe Gallery. Diaghilev/Cunningham. Text by David Vaughan. Hempstead, N.Y.: Author, 1974. Compilation of a gallery showing at the Emily Lowe Gallery at Hofstra University. Includes excellent photographs of the Cunningham dance company. Several photographs illustrate the company performing in nontraditional spaces. Photographs of dance posters and Cunningham’s handwritten choreographic scores supplement the limited text. Includes a chronology of choreography from 1942 to 1974.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Highwater, Jamake. “Notes on Twelve Contemporary Rites.” In Dance: Rituals of Experience. Pennington, N.J.: Princeton Book Company, 1992. A look at Cunningham’s contributions to the dance field through a critical analysis of his choreography. Includes an extensive description of Cunningham’s work Rainforest (1968). Photographs, index, and limited bibliography. Highwater employs an interesting historical and cultural perspective throughout the book, although information on Cunningham’s Events is limited.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kostelanetz, Richard, ed. Merce Cunningham: Dancing in Space and Time. New York: Da Capo Press, 1998. Compilation of essays about the choreographer written between 1944 and 1992. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McDonagh, Don. “Freedom and New Formalism.” In Complete Guide to Modern Dance. New York: Doubleday, 1976. Encapsulation of Cunningham’s work from 1942 to 1975. Includes complete descriptions of twelve of the choreographer’s dances. Chronology of Cunningham’s work is also included. McDonagh features a chronology of significant dates and events in modern dance development. Includes an annotated bibliography and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mazo, Joseph H. “Merce Cunningham.” In Prime Movers: The Makers of Modern Dance in America. New York: William Morrow, 1977. An extensive chapter on Cunningham’s choreographic process, including descriptive information on the Events. Mazo provides many quotes from Cunningham in his essay and also offers comments on Cunningham’s work from other sources. Includes extensive annotated bibliography on modern dance, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Siegel, Marcia. “Crystallization II.” In The Shapes of Change. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979. Chronology of modern dance presented via the description of actual dances. Includes extensive accounts of Cunningham’s dances Summerspace (1958) and Winterbranch, which were used as material for some of the Events. Discusses Cunningham’s use of chance operations. Chronology of significant modern dance premieres, extensive notes, bibliography, index, and some photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. “Human Events.” In Watching the Dance Go By. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977. A definitive chapter that specifically addresses Cunningham’s Events. Siegel includes vivid descriptions of two Events as performed at the Westbeth Cunningham dance studio and the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Photographs and index.

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